Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Timpano time

An aesthetic pleasure

By
June 28, 2012

Concealment is the watchword in calzones, egg rolls, empanadas, samosas, pasties — in fact, in the many dozens of foods that have evolved along the principle of stuffing, venting, and baking.

The practical and the aesthetic tag-team the eater of pocket foods. On one hand, these foods are convenient as hell. The food is protected in a way the sandwich, with its exposed seam, can never be, a fact which also eliminates the need for a plastic transport bag. Pocket foods also protect their contents — keeping them warm and, as a delightful history of the pasty points out, making reheating easy, even if you just have a shovel and a few hot coals. The pocket format also allows for large-scale production and limits the need for utensils, thus reducing clean-up time.

On the aesthetic side, food tucked into a crust is pretty. The example of this that springs to mind most readily is pie-crust art, be it the classic lattice or more fantastic flour-and-lard interventions.

Of course, a pie is no pocket.

But the pocket, with its golden-brown shading and mysterious allure (“Just what’s under that luscious butter flap, sailor?”), is the closest thing in the food world to the dance of the seven veils.

As a person fascinated with peekaboo foods, I am also interested in gigantic pouches. A timpano is a large-scale pocket. Its size requires more careful attention to its architecture. Instead of stuffing and folding, which suffice with bite- or fist-size pockets, the timpano is nestled in an oven-proof basin that measures somewhere around five inches deep.

I think it is fair to say that all practical gains are sacrificed to aesthetic pleasures in this traditional Italian feast food. But these aesthetic pleasures should not be underestimated.

The dish was arguably made famous in the United States by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott in the 1996 film “Big Night”:

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Though not everyone found the movie authentically Italian, it seems fair to say that it successfully spawned a nice DIY cooking trend, one that sent men and women down to their basements to look for a really big pot.

When my friend Jay invited me to his house for timpano, he actually just referred to it as a “giant Italian dish.” Which it certainly is.

This was Jay’s sixth timpano, and it was wonderful. I imagine I hit Jay at a good time in his timpano curve. The first one, of course, the cook probably just feels lucky to have pulled off in one piece. Numbers two through six are seasoned efforts. The cook has observed the strengths and weaknesses of successive efforts, omitted ingredients less to his liking (Jay no longer uses hard-boiled eggs, but he retained the traditional penne, chicken, meatballs, and ragù), and settled into a rhythm. Because Jay is a musician and a “timpano” is a kind of kettledrum, this ends up being a howl-worthy pun.

Unfortunately, I did not observe Jay assembling the timpano. The reveal was sensational, though. The timpano measured 15 inches at its widest point. The crust was golden and smooth. Jay braced the edge of the cook pot against a large wooden board and, slowly inverting the pan onto the board, exposed the whole pastry intact.

After a few minutes — not, I think, the recommended 15 I saw on a number of blogs, but who can blame him for his impatience? — he and his wife began sawing away at the timpano together, first treating it like a pizza and then serving wedges as laughing, awestruck diners came piling in.

This vision reminded me of a wedding-cake cutting. When I said so, they smiled and seemed glad that today they were not suited up in fancy wedding clothes.

I ate my heaping slice of timpano so avidly I hardly deserve to blog about it. I do remember that it was unbelievably tasty — an ideal combination of saltiness and acidity, with a crust that soaked up the sauce, obviating the need for bread to do the job.

Unless the vegetables are well cooked beforehand, they probably wouldn’t work so well in this dish, since anything that expresses liquid as it cooks might make the timpano look like a condemned building rather than a tidy yurt. One of the many balancing acts here is keeping the crust crisp without leaving too many collapsible voids inside. Since meats tend to firm up as they cook, they seem to have served as beams and posts, keeping the ceiling of this delicious structure aloft.

Venturing into Jay’s timpano city definitely made me think differently about the calzones I have been baking this summer. Though they are mere mouse holes compared to his grand visionary palace, they too offer shelter to sauce, cheese, and sausage.

I guess the cook has always been an architect, and so has always weighed the practical and the aesthetic, always wondering what else she could do with the materials she comes to know so well.

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